5G in Africa: where were we?

26 November 2020

I remember walking through the halls of GITEX in Dubai and AfricaCom in Cape Town last year and not being able to move for talk about 5G. Whether it was infrastructure, monetisation, masts or who would “get there first”, the pure hyperbole associated with next-generation technology was, arguably, becoming tiresome. It almost reached the stage where I took off my lanyard so that I couldn’t be easily identified as a member of the press fraternity.It’s a bit like Brexit in the UK. It was a staple news diet for a few years and then it was like it never happened.

Then, at the turn of 2020 rumours started that someone ate a bat purchased from a wet market in Wuhan, China - and the world was suddenly bracing itself for a pandemic not seen in a very long time. While we still don’t know for sure how the novel coronavirus and Covid-19 came into being, what we do know is that the pandemic has caused a level of devastation that we weren’t ready for.

In the meantime, the tech and telecom industries have continued to pump out their 5G goals and achievements, so let’s get back to more  - dare I say it – positive news and find out what’s been going on in Covid’s deadly shadow.

So, one year on, where are we?

“Not much further – but 5G will happen in hotspots (major cities) and it will definitely emerge in self-contained networks to service particular needs,” says Sanjeev Verma, CEO of Squire Technologies. “Some of these will be run by private enterprises, depending on the spectrum policy in individual countries.”

Verma says that we are still in the very early stages, because while there is activity in north Africa, some in the west and east coast and in the southern region, the vast majority of sub-Saharan Africa remains without 5G. “Announcements regarding launches have to be checked carefully to determine the level of coverage delivered – it can be concentrated in a few urban areas, so we may see that MNO A has deployed 5G, but we should check to see if this is anything beyond a few key cell sites,” he adds. “Moreover, penetration depends on the research you read – for example, Ookla reports very different results from GSA data. It’s definitely in its infancy is the only real conclusion one can draw.”

Talking of reports, GSMA a global trade organisation for mobile operators,

has gone on record saying 5G in Africa is inevitable but not imminent. Is that fair comment? “It’s true that there are some challenges related to the vast scale of the region, such as the availability of utilities and the low population densities in remote regions, causing the 5G business case to struggle, says Camille Abusaba, chief executive officer (CEO) Comtinu, the regional integrator and equipment supplier. “Yet, advances in handsets and network technology mean that it’s inevitable that 5G will arrive, as no one will want to invest in equipment that is already many years old. Geopolitical ambitions also will demand that everything remains competitive as the rest of the world rolls out 5G.

Simon Fletcher, CTO at Real Wireless concurs. “There are certainly challenges presented by the transition to 5G – many of which wouldn’t have even been considered a few years ago,” he says. “We’ve seen a lot of regulators considering different routes to deployment and the challenges they are facing include how to best manage spectrum to balance the demands of often conflicting sectors. It’s going to be a long road, but 5G will be rolled out across the continent – not imminently though as there is a lot of groundwork to be undertaken before deployment can occur.”

Clementine Fournier, VP sales Africa at BICS says she agrees with GSMA’s position.

“Due to the challenges posed by Africa’s size, the need for new architecture, and the delays brought about by Covid-19, 5G is not imminent,” she continues. “However, 5G roadmaps are progressing, particularly in markets like South Africa.”

In fact, a report on 5G in Africa by GSMA, estimates that only seven African countries, including South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, will have 5G by 2025. And this will account for only 3% of mobile data compared to 16% globally.

Just recently, Tunisia’s digital economy minister Mohamed Fadhel Kraiemthat said he expects 5G commercial services to become available in the country starting from 2022. He also indicated that the regulatory process to award the licences should be completed towards the end of 2021, leading to the launch of 5G pilots by network operators. Still, it remains unclear at this stage whether that will actually happen, or if it’s just posturing.

The problem, like with many things, is political red tape. Many African governments haven’t yet developed the regulations that would allow for a 5G rollout. In addition, mobile operators face huge infrastructure costs and that they aren’t sure how they’ll recoup.

Jan Liebenberg, customer chief technology officer at Nokia, adds that in many countries the regulatory frameworks and spectrum policy for 5G still needs finalisation. “Based on the 5G use cases, infrastructure might not be able to provide enough power, sufficient space on a mast, sufficient mast loading capability or sufficient backhaul / fibre might not be available,” he says. “As part of the move to deploy 5G these aspects need to be addressed, including readiness for the next set of use cases that might include low latency, whereby a cloud strategy is required with different types of datacentres, core, edge and far edge datacentres.”

Mobile carriers on the continent aren’t able to offer full 5G services until each country’s communications regulator holds a spectrum auction to sell the rights to transmit over specific frequencies. Rain in South Africa is able to provide 5G because it’s using its existing spectrum to transmit the signal. Not many have that luxury.

Furthermore, mobile operators also need to build the vast network of masts or antennas to transmit the signals. For carriers, rolling out 5G services entails expensive investment - and in the African context, there are question marks as to whether it’s worth it.

In fairness to Africa, 5G is still in its infancy across the globe. Still, there are countries in the West and Asia that are certainly further ahead than others. Is the same true of Africa?

For Sam Darwish, the 5G business development manager for Viavi Solutions, says “presently”, 5G is still under discussion in most of the African countries and the 5G spectrum has not yet been auctioned in the region. “This is not necessarily a barrier though,” he continues. “As with many areas around the globe including Europe, the spectrum is being re-farmed and technologies such as dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) are being used.”

Although there could be a number of reasons why some areas of Africa might be gaining more traction with 5G than others Fournier, says the northern part of Africa might be slightly ahead of the southern part, because “in general, economies in north Africa tend to be stronger than in sub-Saharan Africa”, providing MNOs with a more compelling business case for launching 5G. These regions, she says, tend to have greater smartphone penetration, higher average revenue per user, IoT adoption and more demand from enterprises for 5G.

“The exception to this is in South Africa, where 5G is gaining increasing traction, with operators including MTN, Rain and Vodacom all launching 5G fierce wireless,” Fournier adds. “It’s also worth noting that 5G necessitates that operators have already deployed 4G, and requires new, expensive core network equipment. As a result, the costs of building next generation networks can be prohibitive in regions with struggling economies.”

It’s no secret that Africa is still using 2G and 3G and so for many, 5G is a distant dream. Many have argued that Africa should develop what it has before jumping to 5G, while others say it makes more sense to go straight to it and not waste time and money developing technology with a potentially short shelf life.

Take Nigeria, for example, a country which regularly jockeys with South Africa for number one economy in the continent. Only about 4% of mobile internet users pay for 4G services while more than 40% use the cheaper, yet slower, 3G internet, even though Nigeria has an extensive 4G network. The same story is true for most of Africa. Furthermore, if people are struggling to afford 3G and 4G, then availing themselves of 5G really will break the bank.

“This is far more important for economic development,” argues Verma. “Nationwide coverage is needed to eliminate or reduce the digital divide – and this should build on 3G and 4G.”

Fletcher says that the development of mobile infrastructure across an entire continent is a big undertaking, but one that will be necessary to continue the economic development being seen in the more affluent areas. “What starts in cities will roll out across rural areas, bringing connectivity where before users had to rely on ageing 2G/3G systems. Installation of newer technology in hubs will always have a knock-on effect, resulting in improvements to rural connectivity and the benefits it brings,” he says. “Think of the benefits for rural communities being able to have a high definition video call with a doctor many miles away. If that call is reliant on aged and unreliable equipment and connections, the ability to accurately diagnose and recommend treatment may be significantly impaired.”

But let’s imagine that all the countries wanted or, indeed, were ready for it tomorrow: are there parts of the continent that, for want of a better expression, “need it more” than others? If so, which ones?

Fournier says that with 5G set to support a wide range of use cases, every country will harness 5G in different ways. “Countries that depend on tourism, for example, will need 5G NSA to offer a seamless roaming experience to inbound travellers,” she says. “Nations that have a heavy business and industry focus, on the other hand, will benefit from local 5G SA solutions for different use cases, such as logistics or security.”

It’s a big “yes” from Abusaba, too.  He says: “With the increasing demand for high data rates and high coverage in dense areas, 5G would be welcome, while the benefits of additional capacity to cope with massive machine type communications (mMTC) also would be helpful in agricultural areas. Moreover, political reasons might push some countries to deploy 5G faster than others. Egypt, Algeria and Morocco are probably at the top of that list of countries which need 5G more.”

With that in mind, which sectors will benefit the most from 5G? It’s an important question to ask, especially when  it’s assumed enterprises and public institutions, rather than consumers, will be the initial 5G customers and that they’ll access 5G via a fixed access point - something like a 5G hotspot beamed into a business - rather than using it as a mobile service on their smartphones.

 “Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) is expected to bring anticipated benefits to consumers, although like with elsewhere in the world, 5G handsets are not yet readily available,” argues Darwish.  “Likewise, 5G advances could enable rural broadband connectivity. And applications like mMTC would allow far more efficient agricultural production, where huge advances in agri-sensors can enable major improvements to farming with soil PH, hydration and temperature level monitoring, for example.”

Verma argues that manufacturing is one sector that will benefit from 5G, “but this will depend on the needs of the specific industry”, such as what latency is required. “What volume of data must be processed? Mining is a key focus area, as are trading hubs – ports and airports, for example,” he continues. Self-contained facilities, such as high-performance automated warehouses, are other alternatives. Similarly, hospitals and healthcare facilities may also benefit from local 5G coverage to facilitate low latency 5G applications.”

Additionally, Verma says that “the key thing to remember here” is that a private network does not need to be connected to a macro / country-wide network. “It can exist independently, using distributed processing (UPF) or even with its own core and edge functions,” he continues. “That’s because the 5G connectivity will service low latency and high-data applications that need local processing resources. They do not necessarily need to break out to national networks. So, if we want to run a mine in the middle of a remote area, far from any macro network, that’s OK. The coverage will serve wireless devices and high-performance capabilities locally, in a totally self-contained network.”

As far as Fletcher is concerned, “there are very few sectors that won’t benefit” from improved connectivity brought about through access to the 5G spectrum. “Mobile operators will have incentives to sell newer handsets and leverage charges for data usage, road and rail operators will have access to improved data and smarter traffic monitoring and control systems and local authorities will be able to deliver smoother, more efficient services to residents in their areas,” he adds. “The socio-economic needs in the healthcare and education sectors should be on the vanguard of developments.”

While planning and investing in the next-generation technology clearly seem like good ideas, what is the biggest challenge to building 5G infrastructure in Africa?

Fournier says the challenge is the continent’s geography. “One of the main challenges to building 5G infrastructure in Africa is the size of the territory. 5G operates on higher bandwidths (‘microwaves’) and requires multiple radio sites to support it,” she says. “For this reason, 5G stand-alone cases will be local and targeted at cities. The rest of the landscape will operate on lower frequencies (reusing 2G/3G) and will offer different 5G coverage, but still 5G.”The second challenge is the fact that 5G is a fully new architecture and requires a complete change in RAN and the core network. While NSA 5G requires only a change in RAN, networks still have to be fully 4G deployed, which can be costly and challenging for operators in complex and competitive markets.”

For Abusaba, the primary challenge is similar to that experienced in all regions — the cost.

“How long will it take for the service providers to see a return on their investment, when the average revenue per user (ARPU) is declining worldwide? On the flip side, the average age in these countries is lower and this demographic of consumers tends to exhibit a higher expectation of mobile services.”

Still, for anything to be successful, there has to be an alignment between supply and demand and not everybody is convinced now is the time for Africa to go full throttle toward 5G.

Verma is certainly of the opinion that the operators need not rush in just yet. “The operators don’t really need it yet and without devices, it’s hard to see any growth,” he argues. “There’s no return in it. But there is a clear need for industrial 5G - in the form of private networks for mines, ports, infrastructure and so, for secure private communication. Operators need to make their networks function better and increase coverage – and to ensure better inter-operator agreements to create pan-African coverage with lower fees for basic services. 5G doesn’t resolve these challenges. What does Africa need? Less corruption, so that money available for rural coverage for existing and affordable technologies, such as LTE, actually gets spent on rural connectivity. We need fewer headline-grabbing pilots (with ‘free’ offers from TIP) and more commercial deployment of existing technologies to give a better experience to users.”

Darwish says it’s certainly true that there are some challenges related to the vast scale of the region, such as the availability of utilities and the low population densities in remote regions, causing the 5G business case to struggle. “Yet, advances in handsets and network technology mean that it’s inevitable that 5G will arrive, as no one will want to invest in equipment that is already many years old,” he adds. “Geopolitical ambitions also will demand that everything remains competitive as the rest of the world rolls out 5G.”

Now, time to revisit the dreaded C-word (Covid).  It’s hard to see how Covid could possibly have helped the deployment of 5G, so it appears some operators have had to get creative.

“Covid-19 has delayed standalone 5G, as it has made it harder for operators to fully invest in new network infrastructure,” says Fournier. “However, we are seeing non-standalone 5G being implemented wherever possible.”

Abusaba says that in many parts of the world, local lockdowns have driven an enhanced consumer demand for broadband, but it has in parallel hampered government activity around things like the spectrum auctions. “For example, even in South Africa, where there have been some 5G developments, the only license in existence is with Rain, and even that is a temporary license. Business justifications, just like everywhere else, have to come to the fore,” he adds.

As things stand, Lesotho and South Africa are the only African countries where 5G is commercially available, even if the services are extremely limited.

For example, in Lesotho, only the Central Bank and a mining company can access 5G so far.

In South Africa, the data provider Rain is offering 5G to a select group of customers in Johannesburg and Tshwane, a municipality that includes Pretoria.

As we knock on the door of 2021, operators the length and breadth of Africa will be racing to bring their 5G service to the fore. But seeing as the general consensus is that  progress with 5G hasn’t been as fast as many would have liked, is it fair to expect a lot of progress in the short-term?

“That’s hard to say,” says Verma. “4G is widespread in many countries, but there are plenty of gaps left to fill – and we have yet to see evolution to LTE-A or VoLTE in many cases. Simply tracking availability isn’t good enough – we need to know how extensive the coverage is, the percentage of population covered vs. land area, and so on. We would argue that consumers in Africa do not need 5G right now.” he argues that they need better 2G, 3G and 4G networks, and better devices - ones that work well and are affordable.” Unless and until affordable 5G devices are available, a national 5G network is a bit of a waste of money,” he continues. “The issue is connectivity per se, not 5G. Money should not be diverted from 4G rollouts to subsidise 5G. Yes, 5G gives capacity benefits, but these come at a price, with much greater density of cell sites being required to deliver the promised performance.”

Then, there’s the argument as to whether Africa risks missing out on the digital boom if it doesn’t embrace 5G sooner or later. After all, this is quite a big deal when it’s predicted that a quarter of the world’s population will be African by 2050.

“The time lag before large-scale 5G deployment could have positive implications for the region,” according the recent GSMA study.

This could allow 5G technology to mature and be tested in other markets allowing Africa to learn from the mistakes made in the most developed nations around the world. In addition, the continent could also benefit if the costs of devices and equipment fall once more countries around the world start launching 5G. In other words, timing could be key.

Optimists claim say 5G could allow Africa to access faster and more stable mobile internet without having to lay fibre optic cables that deliver high-speed broadband.

Just over half of Africa’s population live within 25 km of a fibre network and in Nigeria, for example, independent estimates put it much lower at around 14%.

Africa definitely has the appetite for 5G. It might just need to be more realistic re timings.